Arons & Solomon | November 6, 2019 | Articles
This is part two of a four-part series. To read the first article, click here.
The Newburgh v. Arrigo (1982) case remains the foundation of child support and college tuition case law in New Jersey. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that divorced parents have a legal responsibility to pay for a child’s college education to the best of their financial ability, even though married parents are not held to the same standard.
“In general, financially capable parents should contribute to the higher education of children who are qualified students. In appropriate circumstances, parental responsibility includes the duty to assure children of a college and even of a postgraduate education such as law school.”
The ruling established 12 criteria to determine the financial obligations of each parent (which you can read in our previous post).
However, many other cases have shaped the debate surrounding college tuition and child support in New Jersey. Below are a few of the must-know cases since Newburgh v. Arrigo.
Finger v. Zenn
The Finger v. Zenn (2000) case overturned the “Rutgers Rule” established by Nebel v. Nebel, which ruled that mandatory college contributions should not exceed the cost of a state school like Rutgers. In other words, if a child decided to attend a private college or university with significantly higher tuition prices, the Rutgers Rule protected parents from paying those excessive costs.
In Finger v. Zenn, the mother (aka the custodial parent) filed a motion to compel her ex-husband to pay 50 percent of their son’s college education costs at George Washington University. On this point, the judge ruled in her favor.
It was discovered the father discussed college options with his son and encouraged him to apply to Lehigh, an expensive private university with tuition prices like GWU. This fact played a critical role in the decision.
“Nebel is factually distinguishable from this case because defendant’s income and assets are more than adequate for a fifty percent contribution at George Washington University, especially since he received a $25,000 equitable distribution credit for payment toward college. Moreover, to the extent that Nebel is read to hold that there is a ceiling on a college contribution by a divorced spouse to the cost of a state university or any public or private college, it is specifically disapproved.
… The parties to this appeal are indeed fortunate. Their sons have the aptitude for a college education. They share a good relationship with their sons. Their respective economic resources enable them to provide for their sons’ college education. It is self-evident that had this remained an intact family the parties would have given due consideration to a private college and would have given great weight to the fact that George Washington was David’s first choice.”
Black v. Black
Black v. Black (2015), an unpublished Appellate Division case, involved a divorced couple with three children. The children lived with their mother; the father was the noncustodial parent. In the years following the divorce, the oldest son became estranged from his father. Meanwhile, the father continued to have a relationship with his other two children.
The parents agreed to share the cost of college in their divorce settlement, with no specific amounts listed. But when the oldest son decided to go to Rutgers (and later to University of Miami for his sophomore year), the father did not want to pay since they no longer had a father/son relationship.
The court determined three things:
- If the parent/child relationship is severed, the court may include joint counseling as a condition of receiving tuition money from that parent (unless there is a compelling reason to keep the parent and child physically separated, such as a history of abuse).
- Regardless of what school a student personally wishes to attend (private or state), no parent should be expected to contribute more than he or she can reasonably afford.
- When the student has younger siblings, who are closely approaching college age and likely to attend college, their anticipated financial needs must also be taken into consideration. Financial resources cannot be exhausted on the oldest child at the expense of the others. The best interests of all children in the family must be considered.
For these reasons, combined with the specific economic limitations of each parent, the court ruled the parents must contribute “a limited, combined total of $7500 per year, allocated between three college savings plans to be established and specifically earmarked for all three children’s potential college costs.”
The father’s obligation was higher than the mother’s obligation, 55% to 45%, respectively. The arrangement gave each child a $20,000 parental contribution toward college.
After reviewing these cases, a New Jersey parent might wonder: is there any scenario where a noncustodial parent can be excused from making college contributions?
Actually, there is.